Album Review: Joanna Sternberg – I’ve Got Me (Fat Possum Records)
High above the streets of New York, now a deserted dystopia amidst the global pandemic, Joanna Sternberg begins again.
After a debut album that begun amassing a cult following online, and completing a short tour supporting Conor Oberst, Sternberg returned back to Manhattan for inspiration. The reality is far from what that image may suggest – residing on the 40th floor of Manhattan Plaza’s towers that have helped house some of the greatest minds of our generation’s past and present. Acting as an artist’s collective more than anything else, it is clear that this environment cultivated Sternberg’s artistic growth that is further showcased on I’ve Got Me.
There is a unique quality to Sternberg’s craft that sets the music apart from similarly leaning folk peers. I believe it is partly down to the skill of balance in the music – in which art, persona and image are placed against truth, modesty and their quintessential self-deprecation. This process was equally evident on Sternberg’s first record, Then I Try Some More (2019), however, this 2023 effort is imbued with a greater sense of confidence, perhaps more aware of the larger audience that now listens intently, resonating with every word.
Indeed, Sternberg’s talent shines in relation to the everyman. No topic seems too mundane or overwrought, but always worthy of sonic contemplation. ‘Stockholm Syndrome’sees Sternberg confronting a partner when a relationship turns sour, its domestic world infected with roaches crawling up the wall and “dust dancing into my eye”, now feeling more like a place of imprisonment than comfort. Contrastingly, Sternberg turns inward for support in the titular lead single ‘I’ve Got Me’, though Sternberg remains caught between thoughts of courage and of self-doubt, which appear at odds with one another. As reflected literally in the song’s music video that dons the classic comic book style of art, a cartoon of Sternberg is burdened by an angel and a devil on each shoulder, each whispering conflicting words in the ear as the lines “Between self-hatred and self-awareness is a very small thin line” caption the image.
It’s clear that the intersection between art and music is integral to Sternberg’s presentation as an artist. Upon visiting Sternberg’s website, one is taken back to the early days of internet blogging with its eerie recreation of a MySpace page. At the top of the page in comic sans, links to “music” and “art” remain in inverted commas, suggesting that Sternberg is unsure whether to place their projects under such lofty terms.
Perhaps it is because Sternberg’s folk efforts are far removed from years spent playing upright-bass in jazz clubs across the city, and the many years prior studying the instrument in their higher education. However, the switch from jazz to singing against piano and guitar unlocked a confessional release for the artist, and although Sternberg’s time in education is clear in each track’s methodical composition, the addition of Sternberg’s voice imbues their work with a sense of intimacy that is successfully able to cut through the noise.
Listening to the album, I was constantly brought back to the church hymns sung (often reluctantly) in school assemblies. The warm resonance of the piano’s melody lines in songs like ‘Mountain High’ feel inescapably nostalgic, proving that perhaps Phoebe Bridges said it best when she described Sternberg as “the emo Randy Newman”. Aside from other obvious comparisons to Daniel Johnston and Kimya Dawson, the sounds of Judee Sill and fellow label-mate, Joni Mitchell, infuse their way into the project’s compositions.
The album also notably features larger production choices than those featured on Then I Try Some More, and though the stripped back sounds of their first record still linger, the addition of subtle string arrangements, as seen on ‘Drifting On A Cloud’ only help to bolster the IGM’s more baroque pop sentiments. This is continued on the greatest shift in sound for Sternberg – the single ‘People Are Toys To You’, with its marching-band style drums and distorted guitar solo. This could be down to the addition of producer Matt Sweeney, although upon asked about the recording sessions, he admitted that “I pretty much stayed out of Joanna’s way, let them know they sounded great and allowed the music to happen”, indicating that Sternberg’s projects remain, first and foremost, a product of the individual.
I’ve Got Me is therefore a marker of progress, seeing Sternberg retain the integral intimacy of Sternberg’s first record whilst strengthened by more diverse production and greater artistic confidence. “For me, this album is a dead-on example of how the more brave and clear an artist is in expressing their own world, the stronger it resonates with strangers”, said Sweeney. And although Sternberg remains modest when admitting just how impactful the words have been for listeners, I’ve Got Me will only provide more comfort for those through Sternberg’s intimate and candid thoughts skilfully committed to song.
I’ve Got Me will be released via Fat Possum Records on Friday 30th June 2023